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Early childhood education, what is it and why does it matter?

Over the past decade, with the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on universal access to quality early childhood education (ECE) and care, ECE programming has become widely accepted in the Arab Gulf region, and the broader Middle East in general. But more attention has been placed on the quantity of children receiving education in the region, and not enough attention is being paid to monitoring the quality of the education provided and the care the children are receiving.Here in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the number of young children under the age of four going to nursery or receiving ECE is growing rapidly. These children depend on their parents, teachers, and the government to keep them safe and ensure they are being given the highest quality education and care, preparing them for a happy and healthy future.

So why exactly is ECE important, what does good quality ECE and care look like, and how can parents in the UAE ensure their child receives the best education and care possible?

Why is ECE important?

Quality care and education in the first eight years of life plays a critical role in young children’s overall development. In particular, international studies have shown the importance of programming such as ECE on children’s long-term positive development outcomes. Young children with high-quality ECE experiences have increased vocabularies, better language, math, and social skills, have more positive relationships with peers, and score higher on school-readiness tests.

In addition, studies have shown that beyond the academic effects of ECEs, students who attend high-quality preschool programs continue to be healthier, more socially adept, and earn higher incomes than their peers who did not. Furthermore, studies in the United States (US) have shown that for every US dollar invested in ECE, there is a rate of return of seven US dollars or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults.

What does quality ECE look like?

The current proposed universal Education for All indicators of ECE quality developed by UNESCO, as well as other emerging research, involve a wide range of indicators that have been shown to have positive outcomes for children. These indicators are holistic, taking into account everything from the ECE space, furnishings, and learning materials, to the children’s personal care routines and program structure. They also include creativity, critical thinking, listening and talking activities, children’s interactions with their peers and staff members, relationships between parents and the staff, teacher’s qualification and ECE centers’ responsiveness to staff professional development needs. All of these have numerous measurable characteristics and dimensions, which are complicated and require monitoring and evaluation from trained professionals.

How can parents in the UAE ensure their child receives the best education and care?

Currently in the UAE there is little information, other than word of mouth, available to parents to be able to make informed decisions about the early childhood education and care options available. Lack of evaluation ratings from the government based on the above indicators for nurseries and ECE centers does not help parents make informed decisions or monitor their child’s progress, nor does it allow for competition and public pressure to influence policies and practices.

To simplify things, here are some questions parents can ask to learn more about the quality of education and care their child is receiving, allowing them to make more informed decisions:

  • What kinds of space and furnishings are there, will my child be able to be stimulated to learn, play, rest, relax, self-regulate, and be safe and hygienic in this space?
  • How is poor behavior addressed and what preventative measures are in place, such as a regular nap schedule that is in line with my child’s age group?
  • Will my child have access to, and be able to use, books and other activities that will help them develop their reasoning skills and language fluency?
  • Are activities focused on creativity, confidence building, and fine motor skills practice, such as nature and science activities, dramatic play, puzzles, and art built into the program schedule?
  • What kinds of interactions between children and between children and the staff are there, are there an adequate number of staff available to assist them individually without leaving the other children unsupervised?
  • Do they have a flexible set-up allowing for children to move between activities and rooms, small group and individual activities, indoors and outdoors, alternating between active and quieter periods?
  • Are the teachers qualified to educate very young children, as per the Ministry of Education guidelines?

It is important for parents to understand that their expectations can have positive and negative impacts on their child’s education and development. Understanding if expectations are realistic and grounded in science is important for ensuring children have the best quality of care with the best outcomes possible. Unrealistic parental expectations of ECE has a negative impact on the quality of provisions as centers tend to prioritize parents’ expectations, even as some of them are over and above children’s developmental levels or are not proven best practices.What else do parents need to know?

One common observation has been that parents demand teachers focus on writing activities in the classroom over play and wide-ranging, recommended, age appropriate activities that help them develop essential skills, even for very young children. Furthermore, the parents of special needs children sometimes expect improvements in social interactions and skill development, increasing their child’s school readiness with the assumption that their child will outgrow these development delays by themselves with interventions at the nursery, which is neither realistic nor feasible as these conditions require specialized interventions and therapies.

It is the right of each child to grow-up in a safe, caring, and stimulating environment, and only quality early childhood education and care can lay the foundation for a child’s lifelong learning and optimal development.

To learn more about early childhood education and care in the UAE and Ras Al Khaimah, check out our open-access working paper that this blog is based on: Measuring Quality of Privately-Owned Early Childhood Care and Education Centers in the United Arab Emirates: A Ras Al Khaimah Case Study.